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30 Nov, 2009

Why I never became a poet

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

As a Welshman, poetry was in my soul – until the editor of a poetry magazine poured cold water on my efforts

So, the Turner prize award is coming up, and it will be presented by the poet laureate. Which reminds me of my adolescent desire to be a poet. Perhaps most teenagers want to be poets, or at least songwriters, but if you’re Welsh it’s different. Wales is a bardic culture. Its cultural tradition is profoundly invested in the lineage of bards – oral poets – going back through the early middle ages and the Mabinogion into the mists of time. Writing poetry, in other words, seemed a very natural thing to do in north Wales and even, in some sense, a career aspiration or vocation – although I always wanted to write in English.

So … I sang in my chains like the sea, until I actually got to go on a poetry course in a Nissen hut on a Snowdonian mountain, taught by the then-editor of the magazine Poetry Wales. A small group of would-be bards from schools in our area spent a couple of intense days trying to prove we were actual poets. I remember trying to impress people by quoting Paul Morley in NME saying that Joy Division were an “angst band”. I was rightly mocked for this pretension.

When it came to the private tutorials, the man from Poetry Wales was nothing like as impressed with my verses as I hoped he’d be. Worse still, he really liked the work of a rival. He spoke with authority. I never aspired to be a poet after that moment of disillusion in the mountains.

This may seem a ramble, but actually it is pertinent to the use and abuse of criticism. The fact is, that magazine editor really did crush my teen dreams of being a poet. Probably he was right. But maybe … who knows?

I’ve managed to mostly avoid pronouncing on students’ work. It’s a massive responsibility. You know, when you slag off Damien Hirst, that he’s not going to lose his millions overnight because of a review. But what about younger artists who are still discovering a style, a voice? Is it better to back off? A lot of the time, yes.

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